Written: ca. 1315-1400
First published: 1522

Three Kingdoms

(Sanguo yanyi)

Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi) can be read as a study of values in conflict, such as righteousness (yi) against loyalty (zhong), and filial piety (xiao) against brotherhood (xiongdi). In a time of peace and stability, these ideals should coexist and enhance one another; in a time of crisis they may become incompatible.

alternative text

Custom LEGO figurines for a diorama of the Romance of Three Kingdoms, Iyan Ha. | Source:

The word yi, a key term in the novel, can be rendered widely in English by any of the following: responsibility, obligation, duty, the Code, commitment, service, cause, self-sacrifice, honor. At the “conventional” end yi refers to the duties required of a particular role. In the “Liyun” chapter of the Liji the phrase “duties of men” (zhongcheng) covers a wide range of social and political obligations including “the father’s kindness, the son’s filiality … the ruler’s benevolence, the vassal’s loyalty,” and so on. At the “extreme” end, however, yi involves sacrifice, as in the common phrases jiuyi (to die for the mission) or dayi mieqin (for the sake of the greater cause to destroy family bonds). The phrase yanyi in the novel’s title, really a genre title, probably signifies “elaborating on the moral significances of.” Thus yi in its semantic richness and versatility forms a contrast with the more restricted term zhong. In early and mid Warring States texts zhong typically meant “single- minded sincerity”; by the end of the period, in the Xunzi, for example, it means a vassal’s loyalty to the state or the emperor, as in the “Liyun” phrase cited above, zhongcheng. Thereafter, the word zhong stabilized in that sense, and cheng roughly meant “sincerity.” The common compound zhongcheng probably is a synonym compound,“true-hearted sincerity.”

Ideally, zhong and yi, loyalty and honor, should reinforce each other. In chapter 1 of Three Kingdoms, when the three brothers take an oath jieyi (binding their honor) to die for one another and to aid the Han royal house, zhong and yi are aligned. The brothers’ mutual commitment (yi) supports their loyal service to the Han throne. At a later point in the narrative, however, the two values become opposed. When Cao Cao captures Lord Guan (Guan Yu), Lord Guan chooses not to die honorably for his lord, Liu Bei (Xuande), who has disappeared in the chaos of battle; instead Lord Guan surrenders to Cao Cao, stipulating that his surrender is to the Han throne and not to Cao Cao, who is virtually the shogun of the Han dynasty. In this way Lord Guan turns his submission to Cao Cao into an act of loyalty to the Han emperor, a virtual puppet of Cao Cao. Soon after, upon discovering that Liu Bei still lives, Lord Guan chooses to honor his commitment to his elder brother Liu Bei: he leaves Cao Cao’s service to rejoin Liu Bei. At this point yi again takes precedence over zhong. The ambiguity of values here is reflected in Zhang Fei’s behavior. The third brother has become suspicious of Lord Guan’s sojourn with Cao Cao, and attacks Lord Guan for betraying Liu Bei (chapter 28). It falls to Liu Bei’s wives to defend Lord Guan’s conduct and avert a showdown between the two brothers.

Two decades later, in the final crisis brought on by Shu’s ill-fated invasion of Wu, it is Liu Bei’s turn to repay Lord Guan’s devotion. The Southland leader Sun Quan has captured Lord Guan and put him to death; Liu Bei decides to avenge his brother (to satisfy the demands of yi) by leading the Riverland (Shu-Han) attack on the Southland (Wu). By launching this invasion, Liu Bei forsakes his quest to overthrow the usurping Wei dynasty and restore the Han (zhong). Kongming (Zhuge Liang), who stands for zhong and for xiao, but not for yi, had opposed this campaign, just as he has had his doubts about the brotherhood all along. The novelist, however, means to show that yi prevails over zhong. It is perhaps for this very reason—namely, the brothers’ commitment to one another rather than to Liu Bei’s imperial career—that readers have taken the three into their hearts.

If for the brothers yi takes precedence over zhong, it also takes precedence over family ties and values. The rubric phrase comes from the Zuozhuan (Yin 4): dayi mieqin. This means “for the sake of the higher cause to sacrifice the bonds of kinship.” The principle of dayi mieqin is enacted in the opening of chapter 42 of Three Kingdoms, when Liu Bei hurls (or pretends to hurl) his newborn son, A Dou, to the ground. Zhao Zilong had found A dou stranded on a battlefield, carried him safely back to camp, and then presented the baby to Liu Bei. (The novelist gives the task of saving A Dou to Zhao Zilong because Zilong belongs to Kongming’s camp and is not part of the fraternity.) But instead of gratefully rewarding Zhao Zilong, Liu Bei throws A Dou aside, crying out, “For the sake of an infant I risked losing a commander!” Perhaps Liu Bei intended an homage to the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, who is occasionally invoked in the novel. Fleeing Xiang Yu’s cavalry, Liu Bang offers to throw his son from his carriage to lighten it, as recounted in the Shiji’s “Annals for Xiang Yu.” Both leaders, Liu Bang and Liu Bei, have good reasons for publicly rejecting their sons.

Why do Liu Bei and Liu Bang reject their offspring? Why does Agamemnon sacrifice Iphigenia? Why does Abraham offer up Isaac? Each case exemplifies the rejection of qin (kin) for the sake of yi, as a means both to sustain morale among the followers and to protect a leadership position by a transcendent self-denial. This shows the power of the term yi to bind commitment outside as well as inside conventional relationships; zhong and xiao apply only within established relationships. Yi is an outer virtue. The sacrifice of personal interest and affection to the larger mission (dayi) enhances a leader’s virtue and stature. In the specific circumstances of Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei is putting the principle of brotherhood above narrow family interest. An underdog contender, Liu Bei does not want his brothers and comrades to see him give in to a fatherly concern, lest it threaten the solidarity on which the whole military enterprise depends. And yet, the father-son relationship is the bedrock of dynastic government in that it effectively addresses the all-important succession problem. Every king must name an heir or risk losing control of the succession. This is the very reason Kongming values the filial tie above all others. Is it possible, then, to reconcile fraternal comradeship and filial dynasty building? I think that this is the principal problematic of Three Kingdoms. […]

Dynastic politics are criticized, but no cure is proposed. […] If the author of Three Kingdoms had any contemporary agenda, perhaps it was to warn whichever Ming emperor(s) reigned during his lifetime about the fragility of political power. For the Ming began with an emperor who imagined himself as following the model of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang, thus creating a standard of self-evaluation for his successors. The novel, however, dwells not on the first Han reign but on the last. Did the novelist perversely portray the fall of the Han to a dynasty that took the Han as its model?

Since there are far fewer studies of Three Kingdoms than of the more widely known major epics, I have provided additional background information and plot summary to orient the reader (click on the Background/Summary tab in the Resources section below).

Moss Roberts
New York University

Works Cited:

From the preface of Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture, edited by Kimberly Besio and Constantine Tung (State University of New York Press, 2007), vii-xiv.




English translation:

Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Translated by Moss Roberts and published by the University of California Press in both unabridged and abridged editions.


Critical studies:

Besio, Kimberly, and Constantine Tung. Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture. State University of New York Press, 2007.

De Crespigny, Rafe. A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD).  Brill, 2007.

—. Fire over Luoyang: a history of the later Han dynasty. 23=220 AD. Brill, 2017.

—. Imperial Warlord: a biography of  Cao Cao 155-220. Brill, 2010.

Huang, Ray. 1587. A Year of No Significance: the Ming Dynasty in Decline. Yale UP, 1982.

Hung, Hing ming.  The road to the throne: how Liu Bang founded China’s Han dynasty. Algora Pub, 2011.

Parsons, James B. The Peasant Rebellions of the late Ming dynasty. U of Arizona P, 1970.

Tse, Wicky W.K. The Collapse of China’s Later Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE: The Northwest Borderlands and the Edge of Empire. Routledge, 2018.

The above bibliography was compiled by Moss Roberts (New York University).

It was thought that ideally a proper imperial Court should be ruled by a strong senior male, as the word gong (patriarch) in rebel titles suggests, portending a new dynasty. Lacking the will and resources to cope with the rebellion of the Yellow Scarves, the Han Court issues a general call for reinforcements (chapter 1). In response, three of the foreground heroes, Liu Bei (Xuande / dark virtue), Lord Guan (Guan Gong), and Chang Fei (Yide wings to virtue) meet. To defend the hapless Court the three warriors form a brotherhood in a peach garden. Their vow of mutual commitment and loyalty – to live and die, one for all and all for one – hangs over the first two-thirds of the narrative covering the three decades leading up to the fall of the dynasty in 220.

At the transition from the Han to the Wei dynasty in 220, the ruler of the northern kingdom of Wei, Cao Cao’s son, deposes the last Han emperor, sends him into exile, and installs his own family. The southern kingdom had already been semi-autonomous under the Sun clan long before the novel’s opening. In the west the elder brother Liu Bei rules Shu, also called Shu-Han because it purports to continue the fallen Han dynasty and the ruler has the imperial surname, Liu. Thus the three kingdoms, in the making since the battle of Red Cliffs in 208-209, are independently established.

The novel presents in Liu Bei a strong virtuous senior male, who as one of two contenders for the Han throne is capable of restoring authoritative dynastic rule. Moreover, Liu Bei has an ideal heir (although not a biological one) in Zhuge Liang (Kongming), and thus the promise of a reformed Court. The dramatic action of the novel revolves around Liu Bei’s relations with his two sworn brothers-in-arms and the competing relationship with Kongming, who wants Liu Bei to become emperor since he supposedly belongs to the Liu clan and his virtue would empower a reformed effective Court. The brotherhood is essentially a military bond while a restored Court would set up a civil-political order stabilized on filial descent, for which Kongming is the leading advocate. The conflict between the brothers and Kongming drives the narrative. Before explaining that conflict further we should fill in the reader on the other kingdoms, Wei in the north and Wu in the south.

The center of gravity at this time was in the north, where the Court was situated. With a larger population and stronger economy than either the south or the west, the north was more powerful even than the south and west combined. The military leader who rises to prominence and power from the campaigns to suppress the rebellions of the Yellow Scarves is Cao Cao, whose career begins as a protector of the throne. However, Cao Cao soon becomes more than a protector, he becomes a regent operating as the power behind and eventually through the throne.

Like the Shoguns of Japan, who emerge from the battles of the rival protectors of the Heian emperors (Heike versus Genji), the potential victor in China eventually subordinates the last Han emperor but retains him as a figurehead in order to bestow legitimacy on his commands, decrees, and campaigns. As virtual Shogun, Cao Cao proceeds to unify the empire and to prepare the deposition of the Han emperor and the enthronement of one of his sons as the new emperor. Cao Cao himself, however, though made into a villain in the novel, never tries to make himself emperor because that would destroy his image as regent, a role in China and Japan revered for deference to the throne, the restraint it accepts on seeking power. This limit to Cao Cao’s ambition enables Liu Bei to challenge the Cao clan for the Han throne.

Initially, Cao Cao intended to treat Liu Bei and the brothers as valued commanders, but the emperor sees them as allies to free himself from Cao Cao’s control. Once Cao Cao weighs the threat they pose to his own position, he tries to keep them under close watch. Eventually, they escape to pursue their ambition in the wide world beyond the Court. At this time Liu Bei is joined by another major figure, Zhuge Liang / Kongming, a gifted diplomat and strategist. The primary contest now revolves around the struggle for power between Liu Bei and Cao Cao, and continues after their deaths in the struggle between the Cao-Wei house in the north and the Shu-Han house in the west.

To unify the empire, Cao Cao’s primary objective after assuming the regency is to bring the quasi-autonomous southern kingdom of Wu back under the authority of the Han Court. To that end, Cao Cao first leads campaigns against the regional families to the north to consolidate his rear before marching a grand army on the south. The southern campaign leads to the middle segments of the narrative and climaxes in the famous Battle of Red Cliffs, the first major turning point of the narrative set a little more than halfway through the first eighty chapters. Facing Cao Cao’s overwhelming military forces, Sun Quan, the ruler of the south, cannot decide whether to resist or capitulate. Enter Kongming, who despite his youth had been recruited into Liu Bei’s service shortly before as a counselor of unequaled brilliance.

Liu Bei, his top advisor, Kongming, and his brothers have temporarily escaped Cao Cao. Under the protection of Liu Biao, a relative and governor of Jingzhou, they wait and assay their fortunes. Jingzhou is a central province bordering Wu on the southeast, Wei to the north, and offering access to the west. Kongming realizes that Liu Bei, now estranged from Cao Cao, is done for if the south capitulates, so he travels to the southern Court and by means of ingenious arguments persuades Sun Quan to take a stand against Cao Cao and his army poised for invasion.

Cao’s army is accustomed to fighting on land rather than water, but the south is across the mighty Yangzi River and the naval preparations necessary are making the northern soldiers seasick. In a famous scene Kongming has an agent convince Cao Cao to link the ships so that his men can be on a stable surface and overcome their seasickness. Now, however, the ships are vulnerable to fire, which was the point of Kongming’s ruse. Fire happens to be the symbol of Han rule as well as one of Kongming’s weapons of choice.

The novel now shifts from the historical Kongming to legendary romance as he mounts a platform and speaks to nature in Daoist terms to invoke a wind. Kongming has already prepared boats loaded with inflammable material and the wind he invokes drives them burning into Cao Cao’s linked fleet on the far side of the river. The fleet is destroyed, the northern army disperses, and Cao Cao flees north. The south will remain autonomous and an alliance of Sun Quan and Liu Bei forms to take on the kingdom of Wei. But first Liu Bei must move west from Jingzhou to occupy and rule the kingdom of Shu, later Shu-Han.

In the midst of these fast moving events, it seems that Kongming wants to capture the fleeing Cao Cao; but does he really? Kongming dispatches the second brother, Lord Guan, to capture Cao Cao. When they meet, however, Cao Cao reminds Lord Guan of an earlier time when Guan was his captive and he magnanimously released him to rejoin his beloved brothers. To preserve his honor (and the love of all Three Kingdoms readers) Lord Guan turns aside to let Cao Cao through. Kongming has killed two birds. He now can demand that Liu Bei punish Lord Guan for disobeying orders, and by keeping Cao Cao in power in the north as a threat to the south makes sure that Sun Quan will not break relations with Liu Bei while Liu Bei is still in Jingzhou. Kongming next convinces Liu Bei that he has to have his own kingdom in the west. Liu Bei moves west with his retinue, displaces the provincial governor, and leaves Lord Guan behind in Jingzhou as a precautionary defense against the south. He has forgiven Lord Guan for Cao Cao’s escape.

Once Liu Bei takes over that third western kingdom the narrative enters a new phase of triangular struggles. The possibility of restoring Han rule over the empire depends on close coordination between the west and the south for defense and offense against the north. But the west and the south break relations and Lord Guan is the cause when he refuses a marriage between his daughter and a son of Sun Quan. As a result Sun Quan turns to Cao Cao and the two close in on Lord Guan agreeing to share control of the key province of Jingzhou. The capture and execution of Lord Guan in the south soon follows. His death activates the peach garden vow of brotherhood of chapter 1 to “live and die as one.”

Thus the reader arrives at the second major turning point in the narrative. The first, we recall, was the Battle of Red Cliffs that had ended Cao Cao’s plan to subdue the south and opened the door to Liu Bei’s control of the west. After Liu Bei establishes his rule in Shu, he proceeds to reform its government and to plan together with the south for the war against the north. But the execution of Lord Guan has doomed the strategy and Liu Bei will either have to try and fulfill his imperial ambition on his own, guided by Kongming, or set aside his imperial quest to honor the brother-oath and avenge Lord Guan’s death by invading the southern kingdom. Liu Bei chooses the latter course of action, and Kongming, appalled at his decision, goes into seclusion, depriving Liu Bei of his tactical expertise. As a result, the invasion of the south fails. Liu Bei cannot return to his kingdom and face the anger of the families whose sons perished for so ill-conceived a campaign; he dies in a town outside the kingdom and his son, Ah Dou (Liu Shan) inherits the rule of Shu (chapter 85).

Ah Dou is not a competent ruler and he has little interest in his father’s grand project. On his deathbed Liu Bei had offered to make Kongming his heir, but Kongming is committed to the principle of filial inheritance as the bedrock of dynastic stability and continuity, and refuses to take Ah Dou’s place. Instead, he begins planning for an invasion of the north with Ah Dou as ruler. A new generation is now underway as we enter the last third of the narrative, chapters 80-120. The third brother Zhang Fei has been killed by his subordinates, while in the north Cao Cao also dies having prepared the way for his son Cao Pi to depose the last Han emperor and establish a new dynasty, the Wei, whose reign begins in 220, honoring Cao Cao retroactively as its founder with the title Martial Emperor.

With no reliable military support from the south Kongming prepares to invade the north. He makes several attempts but is undermined by Ah Dou’s unwillingness to wage war and his preference for a comfortable existence.

In the last of Kongming’s northern campaigns In the year 234 he falls ill while in camp, his army in battle (chapter 104). The last Han emperor Xiandi dies in exile the same year. Kongming is a watcher of the stars, and sees his guiding star fall knowing it is a sign from the skies that death approaches even as he awaits word of the outcome of the campaign. To ward off an counter attack from the Wei General Sima Yi he places a wooden likeness of himself in his carriage. So great is his reputation for deceptive tactics that Sima Yi declines to attack the camp, yielding the saying that a dead Kongming scared off a live Sima.

A set of poems memorializes Kongming’s death, perhaps the most well known by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, ending in this couplet: “To die, his host afield, the victory heralds yet to come – / Weep, O heroes, drench your fronts, now and evermore.” (chapter 105). The foreground is now swept clean of heroes, as foretold in the lines on the mighty Yangzi River that opens the Qing dynasty edition, “Of proud and gallant heroes its white tops leave no trace.” After Kongming’s death the narrative flattens out, dramatic interest subsides, the characters are ordinary. Pedestrian history is presented in the novel’s last 16 chapters.

Ah Dou surrenders to the Wei in 263, putting the north in position to fulfill Cao Cao’s ambition to reclaim the south. Three years later, however, the Wei regent Sima Yi stages a coup and establishes his own dynasty, the Jin. The coup had originated in 249, when Sima Yi seized power and ruled through the Wei throne, a reprise of the way Cao Cao as Han regent had ruled through a figurehead emperor.

In 266 Sima Yi overthrows the Cao-Wei house and establishes the Jin dynasty under the Sima clan. With the west out of the way, the Jin can concentrate on reunifying the dynasty. In the final chapter the Jin easily conquers the south (280) in what is almost a comedic parody of Cao Cao’s failed attempt to recover the south. And so the opening lines of chapter 1 are fulfilled: “The empire, long divided, must unite, long united, must divide,” as history comes full circle. But the Jin is no reprise of the mighty Han dynasty, and the Sima clan barely holds on to power for a generation before being driven south. Reunification will not come until 581.

Moss Roberts (New York University)